Faculty consider grading overhaul

Grading
Photo by Yale Daily News.

Forty years ago, only 10 percent of grades awarded by Yale College were in the A-range. Last spring, that percentage was 62.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller created the Yale College ad hoc committee on grading policy, which released a preliminary report on grading trends last week, as a response to rising grade-point average cutoffs for high honors and soaring grade averages nationwide. Chaired by economics professor Ray Fair, the committee presented its findings at last Thursday’s Yale College faculty meeting and recommended that Yale College transition from a letter grade system to a 100-point scale, along with other proposals, which would be implemented in the 2014-’15 school year. The committee will consider student and faculty feedback and submit concrete proposals for a vote at April’s faculty meeting.

Though the report stated that compression at the top of the grade distribution can be detrimental to students, students and faculty interviewed expressed mixed reactions to the committee’s proposals.

“[The report] looks at the long term trajectory in which the total number of A’s and A-minuses have risen steadily as a percentage of overall grades across all divisions and departments, and it recommends that the faculty take a number of actions,” Miller said. “I think this is going to be a major point of discussion this year.”

The committee’s report begins with an examination of the purpose and intent of grades, and then compares grading data from Yale to similar data from peer institutions. The report notes continuous grade compression at the top of the GPA rubric, with A’s, A-minuses and B-pluses dominating students’ transcripts. The report also indicates large discrepancies between the grades awarded in different departments.

Based on this data, the committee drafted a number of preliminary proposals, including transitioning Yale’s grading system to a 100-point system. Fair said percentage grades would eliminate the “cliffs” that exaggerate the differences between B-plus and A-minus grades while providing professors with a means of curbing potential grade inflation.

“If you’re going to change the system at Yale from what we now have with respect to the clustering of A’s and A-minuses, you’re probably going to have to change the units of currency,” Fair said.

Though the committee did not advocate mandatory grade distributions, the report suggested a set of guidelines that would award 35 percent of grades in the 90 to 100 range, 40 percent in the 80 to 89 range, 20 percent in the 70 to 79 range, 4 to 5 percent in the 60 to 69 range and less than 1 percent at 59. Under these distributions, the mean grade in Yale College would be an 85.5 percent, according to the report.

But faculty and students interviewed expressed mixed opinions about the committee’s current proposals.

Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan said he thinks the upward compression of grades makes grades lose their effectiveness as evaluative tools, which is harmful for students.

“If B-plus is being kept for bad work, and virtually everyone is getting A or A-minus, this eliminates any genuine feedback,” Kagan said. “I’ve always thought this is a disservice to undergraduates.”

Kagan said he thinks taking a more active stance against grade inflation could prompt other universities to follow suit, adding that Princeton drew the attention of other universities in 2004 when it instituted grade deflation policies, which standardized the percentage of A’s and A minuses awarded at 35 percent for undergraduate courses and at 55 percent for junior and senior independent work.

But political science professor David Cameron said he is skeptical about the benefits of the committee’s proposals. While Cameron said he is intrigued by the data the committee has collected so far, he added that many complex factors determine grade distribution, and he thinks professors should consider the reasons behind fluctuations in grading over time and across departments before making significant changes to University policy.

The 13 students interviewed opposed switching to a 100-point system, though not all agreed on whether grade inflation affects their performance in the classes they take.

Christopher Mulvey ’15 said he believes grade inflation affects certain departments at Yale, but he thinks the net impact of switching Yale’s current system would be detrimental overall.

“I think the 100-point system would be way too much stress,” Mulvey said. “[Yale] was billed to me as one of the least competitive Ivies, in a good way, where you don’t want to kill the people around you for doing better than you. That’s not what Yale’s about.”

Matthew Thomas Ambler ’13 added that students would stress more about every point in a 100-point system, which would also put additional pressure on professors.

Miller convened the ad hoc committee on grading policy in September.

Clarification: Feb. 11

A previous version of this article stated that 40 years ago, only 10 percent of grades awarded by Yale College were A’s, and that last spring, that percentage was 62. Those percentages refer to grades in the A-range.  

Comments